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At Dark, Boil Water

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In the Gottlieb house, there were no such things as ghosts, or magic, or any force that wouldn’t eventually be explained by science and logic. Intellectually, Hermann knew this to be the case. And while fanciful books or game of make-believe were not verboten, couldn’t be in a house full of children, Father often asked if Hermann wasn’t too old for such flights of fancy, or if he didn’t have some real reading to finish.

From a very young age, Hermann learned to keep his daydreams of strange visitors hanging over his bed, the kind, odd conversations with the altes Haus’s previous inhabitants, having the book he wanted to read at hand at all times even if he hadn’t gotten up from his comfortable bed, and the statistically improbable winning game of guessing who was at the door, to himself. Clearly all the product of an under-challenged mind, like Matilda Wormwood and her ability. Only the notion of psychic powers was dangerous pseudo-science, twaddle for the superstitious.

But mum would listen, at least about the visitors, usually in the moments before bed when she was tucking him in and taking a feather duster to the closet (to tickle the monsters out, she explained very seriously, and while Hermann scoffed about being too old for such games, he hadn’t seen a monster yet, so there was no reason for her to stop) and leaving a little net in the closed window for fairies and other little invaders.

“How is my little soldier’s leg,” she muttered in her English-accented German, laying clever spindly fingers over Hermann’s thigh, propped up by several pillows. “Will you be able to sleep easily tonight?”

“Yes mum,” Hermann said with a roll of his eyes and paused. “But, could you do the spell?”

Mum smiled. She never told Hermann there was no such thing of magic, and while he knew she was just playing, he really did fall asleep easier when she crossed her hands over his thigh, not touching (“very important, dear, the magic wants a path,” she explained, still playing) and then made three brisk successive motions before she put buzzing warm palms on his cheeks and kissed him on the forehead.

“There,” she said. “A good night’s sleep for a growing boy.”

He never woke to early morning discomfort when she did that. But of course, it was just a mother’s expertise. Hermann was sure every mother had a thousand little tricks to help their children sleep through the night, and that they must have seemed like magic to every child.

She cried when Hermann was going away to school for the first time when he was twelve years old, and he had to bite the inside of his cheek and grip his cane very hard not to do so as well when she hugged him.

“Make sure to eat properly,” she sniffled into his shoulder, and laughed wetly, drying her eyes with a dark green handkerchief. “Nicht nur Kartoffeln, I want you to eat something which is green and has seen sunlight every day, darling.”

Hermann nodded dutifully.

“I made you something,” Mum said and produced a little tea tin from her large handbag which always seemed to have exactly what it needed in it. Just like every other mother Hermann knew. “My parents gave me this when I left home for the first time. I know you are a very serious, sensible boy, so this will seem like English superstition to you. But it is important to me that the minute the sun sets for the first time in your new place, you are to make tea exactly according to the instructions. It’s for luck.”

I don’t need luck, Hermann thought, but Mum’s face was so expectant and he nodded again.

“I’ll call when I get unpacked,” he promised. “Shan’t be much later than tea time.”

“All right, another hug for the train, then,” Mum said and held her arms open. The uncertainty and sadness which Hermann had been struggling with in the weeks leading up to the school year seemed to soak into her clothes like so many tears, and Hermann boarded the train feeling content and safe.

That evening, in his new dormitory, Hermann opened the battered tea tin, and pulled out the note, in his mother’s spidery scrawl.


  • At dark, boil water, pour into your favourite cup and let sit for one minute.
  • Steep until the flowers bloom. They will bloom.
  • Stir four times widdershins (This is the most important part, precisely because it is absurd)
  • Hold in left hand and sip until empty. Leave the spent flowers on the windowsill. If you have a wish, this would be the time to make it, dear.
  • Repeat nightly.


English superstitions were so strange. But Hermann loved his mum and followed her instructions to the letter. The tea was floral, but not overly so for his palate, and there was a subtle sweetness, though he’d not added sugar. He carefully set the damp petals on his kerchief, then laid it on the windowsill, pausing. He couldn’t think of a wish right now except--

“I wish it was winter hols,” he said into the empty room, feeling very silly.

He woke the next morning to a smattering of snow on the ground and the kerchief on his windowsill empty of flower petals. Well, it was September. Snow wasn’t unheard of. The shadows seemed longer at school and Hermann often saw people he didn’t recall being introduced to walking the halls, but he’d always been a nervous child and this was his first time away from home.

It wasn’t as if he needed another reason to be isolated here. His classmates already called him several names, something as dully unimaginative as Geistlieb or the like would hardly lighten the load.

And if his latest tormentors had to write an important test with their eyes in the back of their sockets because of bad dreams, or if they tripped on a completely even floor and broke arms which had been raised towards Hermann, even in jest, that was only coincidence. Coincidences were an everyday occurrence after all.